Kevin McStay: Mayo’s progress to Super 8s far from guaranteed

The likes of Monaghan and Tyrone or Donegal make qualifiers a treacherous route

James O’Donoghue in action against Clare. He forms part of a very exciting full forward line along with David  Clifford and Paul Geaney. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

James O’Donoghue in action against Clare. He forms part of a very exciting full forward line along with David Clifford and Paul Geaney. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Where are we now?

The All-Ireland football championship starts in a meandering way but the current becomes deceptively quick. We have seen every team in the All-Ireland football championship by now. It’s around this stage when you can forecast what may happen with some degree of accuracy as to how the competition will look when the field is reduced to the last eight.

In general, it is panning out as was widely forecast. Outside Monaghan’s loss to Cavan and Mayo’s defeat to Roscommon, things are running along the expected lines.

Next Saturday night’s clash between Tyrone and Donegal is the stand-out fixture of the championship to date. I expect one of those two to become Ulster champions and I have a slight leaning towards Tyrone.

But the other team will go into round two of the qualifiers and this could have major repercussions on who does or doesn’t feature in the Super 8 series.

Yet again, the Ulster championship served up another memorable game at the weekend in the meeting of Cavan and Armagh. One of the things that struck me – and it has for some time about Ulster – is the amount of reckless tackling that erstwhile very well-coached teams engage in.

And it’s not from the angle of the cards dispensed by referees – and referees are often lenient in the colours they show in these games. All the fouling means t teams are prone to giving away crazy scoring-range frees in games which they know will probably come down to a point or two.

In Cavan-Armagh, I saw a number of daft fouls which led to tap-over frees. Perhaps the passion of the Ulster scene may cause players to forget themselves and commit the very fouls their coaches have doubtlessly preached against and coached against. But it keeps happening. I expect to see it again in Breffni Park next week as well when Tyrone and Donegal meet. Nature and instinct takes over.

Last Sunday, each team scored four frees apiece in a game that ended up as a draw. It negates so much of the excellent defending and hard work and organisation and means that the team enters a kind of lottery. If you lose that game by a point and look back and see you have given away four needless scores through rash tackling, it becomes hard to live with. But it seems to be part of the Ulster package.

Armagh’s Jamie Clarke scores a late free against Cavan to level the game and force extra-time at Clones: Ulster teams continue to concede needless costly frees. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Armagh’s Jamie Clarke scores a late free against Cavan to level the game and force extra-time at Clones: Ulster teams continue to concede needless costly frees. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

I believe Dublin and Kerry are certainties to win Leinster and Munster respectively. Kildare are unlucky because they are on the wrong side of the draw and fated to meet Dublin the Leinster semi-final. I expect Meath to emerge as Leinster finalists, which means they return to top-12 status after a long period in the wilderness. A good performance against Dublin is vital for their morale.

Cork have been huge beneficiaries of the draw in that they were kept away from Kerry and also avoided Tipperary as a result of Limerick’s surprise victory. And they are only one favourable draw away now from a place in the Super 8 series. The asterisk is that it would have to be a favourable draw because Cork haven’t done anything like enough to suggest that they are a genuine top eight team. But they might just have that bit of luck.

Quality attackers

Kerry interest me. They were always going to beat Clare. But their full forward line looked so, so threatening in that game. This unit of David Clifford, Paul Geaney and James O’Donoghue is the source of all optimism within the Kingdom. Throw in Seán O’Shea and you have an unrivalled squad of four elite forwards. No team in Ireland has as many quality attackers – including Dublin.

Geaney and Clifford look as if they are developing a collective understanding and sharpness at the right time. The questions arise over their midfield and defence – hardly insignificant factors. But they have youth and pace up front. And pace is the one thing you cannot coach. So, it is going to become hugely exciting for them – provided they can develop a strong midfield before the games become tougher. David Moran needs to have the season of his life and a thriving Jack Barry is needed also.

We wondered about Dublin’s hunger but there is no question mark about that now. However Jim Gavin has managed it, the desire and application is as high as it ever was. What they did to Louth was outrageous, really. They savaged them until the last minute.

The substitutes who came in were looking for goals, to make tackles, to keep the pace up. It was cruel but you can see the motivation is internal. Then I was reading Bernard Brogan during the week where he put his name to this final push and said he was in the shape of his life and just wants to contribute. So in terms of body language or PR or togetherness, there is no obvious obstacle to a fifth title.

There is no Diarmuid Connolly in the squad, obviously. But as I see it, the balancing act of bringing Diarmuid back in is considerable. Rory O’Carroll is a different prospect; he is a quiet presence and attracts nothing like the attention. It was easy to reintroduce him. Diarmuid is a bigger call.

But what a position to be in; they could still bring in one of the best players the game has seen two weeks out from the Leinster final. If Diarmuid is not back by the Kildare fixture, then Dublin supporters won’t see him this summer. So it will be an interesting week.

In my own bailiwick, things have taken a surprising turn. Galway-Roscommon is a fixture for the fourth year in a row but – because of the draw in 2016 – also the fifth final in those four years. It is a rivalry that has become very hard to read. The draw in 2016 was in the balance and Roscommon had chances to win it. In 2017, Galway were favourites and were well beaten.

Only three Roscommon starters in the Mayo match also featured in last year’s Connacht final

In 2018, Galway were again expected to win and having been there, I can say that Roscommon had that game won but for a few small breaks. It is a contest of fine margins despite the bookies’ sense of it.

Now, it looks like Damian Comer will be out for Galway and he is such a central figure in their attack. But for Roscommon, Niall McInerney, Cathal Compton and Ciarán Murtagh are also unavailable.

Tough test

In fact, only three Roscommon starters in the Mayo match also featured in last year’s Connacht final. That is an extraordinary turnover of players. People rightly think of Roscommon as a small county. But there are 12 lads floating about this summer who started last year’s final who won’t start this year if Anthony Cunningham sticks with the same team. And in my time, I was also dealing with the issue of players not available.

So if you tease it out, the Roscommon bench against Mayo included Enda Smith, Conor Devanney, Diarmuid Murtagh, Brian Stack, Donie Smith and Fintan Cregg. Those substitutes, in terms of experience and know-how, were well ahead of what Mayo were bringing in to the same game.

That would be lost in terms of a general analysis of that match. So the Connacht final is not a one-sided contest from my point of view. I genuinely can’t figure out Galway. I can’t decide if they are a true All-Ireland contender or not or even confidently see them in the Super 8 series. This is a tough test for them.

Those wides have been a recurrent theme in Mayo football for the last 40 years

Things like the venue, the league and form have not really entered the equation between Galway and Roscommon. Already, what Roscommon have achieved this year in the championship is remarkable. And I still see the final as a 50-50 game and have no reason to believe they can’t win it. They will be in a healthy position in that final.

That leaves Mayo. They find themselves in a vulnerable place now, in the qualifiers in early June. Some teams get lucky. We already mentioned Cork’s position; they knew they would probably be in a Munster final and thus the last 12. But Mayo and either Donegal or Tyrone will find themselves in a much more difficult place.

Round three of the qualifiers is completely open and the home and away venue still operates. Mayo’s loss to Roscommon has been wrapped up nicely enough with the reassurance that all their statistics were positive – except for the wide count. I feel like that’s saying that a snooker player who breaks down at 46 was on for a century if only he hadn’t missed that easy red. Those wides have been a recurrent theme in Mayo football for the last 40 years. Kildare, funnily, have a similar condition.

Mayo are the national league champions and have form in negotiating the championship path. But they could face and beat Monaghan away or Tipperary away in round two. And then maybe Donegal or Tyrone appear in round three. If they win those – no easy feats – they could then possibly have Galway in Hyde Park in round four. What kind of shape would they be in then?

Question marks

Last year, Kildare proved one game too many for them. Now, they are a year older as a team. Injuries. Tiredness. Suspensions. These factors come into play. The games roll around quickly. Do the supporters have the stomach for another go on the whirligig? When James Horan sits down, they have to look at the goalkeeping matter again.

Robbie Hennelly had a brilliant national league and a great final, but most observers still prefer David Clarke as a first-choice goalkeeper. But if we agree that Rob is getting the nod because of his kick-outs, what about the calamitous restarts he had against Roscommon?

Maybe he is starting because Cillian O’Connor’s free-taking prowess is unavailable to Mayo right now. But in free kicking, according to Gaelic Stats, Rob is 25 percent for championship and 17 percent in all competitions in scores from long range frees. So the numbers don’t fully endorse that argument.

There are question marks at both ends of the field for Mayo. Their presence in the Super 8s is far from a foregone conclusion; it is now all about the draw.

The All-Ireland favourites, Dublin, will be in the Super 8 series. I believe Kerry, Tyrone and Roscommon will be provincial winners and so will join them. After that, fate and luck comes into it.

But the losers of the provincial finals, while previously regarded as wounded animals, now have a fortnight to recover from that disappointment and steel themselves to face the teams that come through the gauntlet of the qualifiers.

Will Mayo be among their number? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. So for once the provincial losers are in pole position to still be there when the All-Ireland race reaches its last lap and the sprint begins.

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